Editor’s note: This article has been updated (05/18/2019).
The Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University in Washington, D.C., hosted its first annual National Antiracist Book Festival on April 27, 2019. Organized by National Book Award-winner Ibram X. Kendi, the festival featured nearly 50 authors, including African-American Christians Jemar Tisby and Austin Channing Brown.
“It was extremely significant that Dr. Kendi extended this invitation to myself and … Brown,” said Tisby, author of The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism. “It speaks to the importance of religion — specifically, Christianity — to this work of antiracism. We will not make significant racial progress in this country unless we are speaking to Christians and translating the language of antiracism into church contexts.”
Thank you to @DrIbram and the entire @AntiracismCtr team for hosting the first national #antiracistbookfest. This one-of-kind and much-needed event has the potential for transformative impact on race relations in our nation. pic.twitter.com/JWNcc7FYqw
— Jemar Tisby, PhD (@JemarTisby) April 28, 2019
Although commonly used in critical race theory and in discussions about racial identity, the term whiteness has proven to be a stumbling block for some Christians unfamiliar with its application. When the term is used to describe how the White majority has been conditioned to accept and ignore forms of racism or systemic discrimination, some take it as a personal affront.
“White folks have to do their homework, because these are very basic terms,” Tisby said. “Within the broader community of people working for racial justice, the concept of whiteness describes this really toxic idea that promotes racial inequality and white supremacy. It is the social construct of race that empowers certain people and disempowers other people. But that is not an indictment of an individual whose skin is considered White.”
Other speakers at the Saturday event included Pulitzer Prize-winner David W. Blight (author of Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom), Elizabeth Hinton (From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime), and D. Watkins (We Speak for Ourselves). In their panel discussion, titled “On Christianity,” Tisby and Brown highlighted how whiteness works in mainstream presentations of the Bible.
Biblical narratives, primarily set in the Middle East and African nations on global trade routes, are inhabited by people of all different ethnicities and skin tones. Yet until recently, popular storybooks and on-screen adaptations of Bible stories have often depicted figures with blond hair and light skin — a form of historically inaccurate revisionism.
“Having gone to a Christian school, where everybody in the Bible is White… every illustration… the first time I saw Black Jesus — I just stared. I couldn’t believe it,” said Brown, author of I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness.
Tisby questioned how this trend reflects privileges that come with having skin that is considered “White.”
“Why are Bible characters coded implicitly or explicitly as White? There’s an assumption of credibility, wealth, or knowledge. People of color don’t get that same presumption,” he said.
In 2002, British scientists and Israeli archaeologists used forensic anthropology to reconstruct what the historical Jesus Christ may have looked like. The resulting image differed significantly from typical Sunday school portraits of a fair-skinned, light-haired Jesus.
“What we do when we talk about whiteness is to make the implicit explicit,” Tisby said. “Because whether you acknowledge it or not, whiteness is at work. Only by naming it, unpacking it, and challenging it can we begin to dismantle it and bring about real racial equality.”
Amid her remarks, Brown injected humor into what were clearly painful personal stories of church attempts at racial reconciliation gone awry.
“It’s when I wrote, ‘If you want to pursue racial justice, you have to get comfortable with being uncomfortable,’” said Brown, addressing a question about a line in I’m Still Here that is written specifically for White readers. “Black folks already know that! I don’t need to tell them anything about being uncomfortable. But it’s one of the lines I most frequently see White people post, because they’re so used to their own comfort.”
Brown also recounted how she is often asked to connect faith, justice, and the gospel when speaking to Christian college students — with the question usually posed by a “White boy who is so well-meaning.”
“Here’s why I can’t answer that,” Brown said. “I grew up in a Black church where we understood that the second book of the Bible — you ain’t even got to go far — had God freeing some slaves! We ain’t got no questions about whether justice is in God’s plan. We have to begin with that when we think about decolonization. We’re starting with Scripture, not whiteness.The Black church has always had a fundamentally different understanding of the Bible.”
She expounded on the racialized interpretation of the “curse of Ham” that appears in Genesis 9 used by White Christians for centuries as biblical justification to enslave, dehumanize, and exclude Black people.
“I can go back and read the Bible for myself,” Brown said. “I want y’all to know, I was real pissed when I found out that there was no curse on Ham. Here I thought I had to do some theological work and dig into some Hebrew in order to disprove this. [But] the story you’ve been telling me is wrong? It’s not even in there?”
Looking forward to coming back to DC! pic.twitter.com/AarKiZ0qgF
— Austin Channing Brown (@austinchanning) April 25, 2019
While the National Antiracist Book Festival was mocked by some conservative observers as “fashionable wokeness,” many of the speakers’ presentations were rigorous and illuminating.
“One of the issues within Christianity, specifically White Evangelicalism, is that folks have labeled certain groups of people or schools of thought as ‘untouchable,’” Tisby said. “Therefore, we’re not learning from people who are doing this work full-time and have been doing it for decades.”
Tisby and Brown praised hard-fought advances for justice and equality in the U.S. as they closed out their remarks. Yet, they also expressed exasperation at how current partisanship reinforces divisions along ideological and ethnic lines.
“There is no question that America has changed,” Brown said. “I have ancestors who were slaves and I am not. However, I would suggest that we have only reached the baseline of humanity. I am grateful for my ancestors’ struggle and their survival — but I am not impressed with America’s progress.”